Will Bryce Harper ever achieve superstar status?

Since the start of the 2012 season, one of the most talked-about players in all of baseball has been Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper. The 21 year old was called up that year at the tender age of 19, and was extremely impressive. His 20 home runs, 58 RBIs and 18 stolen bases warranted him a trip to his first All-Star Game, as well as the Rookie of the Year Award. Since then , Harper’s young career has been something of a roller coaster ride. He has shown flashes of brilliance, but will he ever be the once in a generation talent many experts believed him to be?

Harper’s journey through the Major Leagues

After winning the ROY in 2012, Harper looked to be getting even better in 2013. Through April of that season, he hit .344 with 9 home runs and 18 RBIs. For that first month, he seemed ready to become an MVP-type player, following in the footsteps of fellow outfield phenom and 2012 AL ROY Mike Trout. However, that’s when things started going downhill.

In May of 2013, Harper hurt his knee crashing into the wall in Dodger Stadium. A month-long trip to the disabled list did not turn out to be enough, as he would not be the same player after returning. For the year he actually put up nearly identical statistics to his rookie year, with 20 home runs, 58 RBIs, and a .274  batting average. These were good numbers, but slightly misleading, considering Harper was at his best in April. After his injury, though, he struggled mightily at the plate, partly because of the residual effects of his knee injury.

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Race for the Postseason: NL East

Over the last two weeks, I previewed the division races in the American League. This week I will be covering the National League. Up first is the NL East. We will organize our discussion by current standings.

Washington Nationals
60-49 | division lead

Following a 2013 season where they fell four games short of a wild card birth and 10 games out of first in the NL East, the Nationals have taken control of a weak NL East.

Washington’s offense has struggled recently.  Denard Span has the highest average on the team at .291, and their team BA of .250 is 19th in the league. Also, Bryce Harper spent three months on the DL earlier this season, which certainly hurt their offensive output.  However, there are some bright spots.  The Nats traded for Asdrubal Cabrera at the deadline, who adds some much-needed power and a decent bat to the lineup (not to mention some flashy fielding). Also, Harper has been been slowly heating up sine his return to the majors, and is now hitting .260 on the season.

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Nationals: All In

The Washington Nationals are all in.

Today they agreed to sign Rafael Soriano to a two-year deal (three links).
What would make a team with a duo of competent closing options (Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard) acquire a closer who’s tied to draft pick compensation?

Well, if they’re looking for those last few pieces to make the World Series.

Earlier this offseason, the Nationals acquired Denard Span from the Twins, essentially giving them four start-able outfielders. There was speculation as to whether the Nationals would trade Mike Morse or move him to first if Adam LaRoche left.

When they resigned LaRoche, it put Morse in limbo; however, don’t be too surprised if they keep him.
Morse would be fantastic insurance for an injury to one of the outfielders (Jayson Werth has been injured a few times) or LaRoche. He could also play first when the Nats are facing a lefty.

For these reasons, the Nationals would be best advised to only trade Morse for the right deal. They need to be impressed by the offer before trading Morse. The 30-year old is only a year removed from 31 home runs, and is a right-handed power bat – a rare commodity in the current market.

Edit: The Nationals did end up trading Morse in a three-team deal for three prospects including A.J. Cole, whom they sent to Oakland in the Gio Gonzalez deal last year.

Without Span or Soriano, the Nationals won the NL East – and 98 games in the regular season – in 2012. But almost any team that wins its division after years of underachievement is looking for more.

Though the team is short a dependable left-handed reliever, it has a solid rotation, eight seven proven position players, and now three pitchers capable of closing. This looks like a team trying to go somewhere now.

Having said all that, the 2013 Nationals remind me of a few recent teams that made postseason runs:

1. The 2003 Marlins

The Marlins went all in and won the World Series, similar to their 1997 team.
They relied a lot on homegrown talent, and after the victory, they couldn’t afford to hold onto their players. They went into all-sell mode to rebuild again.

This doesn’t seem a fair comparison because the Nationals’ success has been on the other side of rebuilding a new stadium (2008 opening). Additionally, the Nationals have more money to spend than the Marlins ever have.
Take the front end of the 2003 Marlins team – the talent coming together at the right time – and you’ve captured the main part of the similarities.

2. The 2007-2011 Phillies

Through the later part of the ‘aughts, the Phillies built their team around a core of players like Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard. The team continued to get better overall and they built their talent up to a 102-win season in 2011. Ironically, though, they only managed to capture the trophy on the front end of this stretch in 2008, because they were the hottest team at the end of the year.

This is more of a fair comparison. The Nationals are accruing talent like these Phillies teams did, also accruing a larger fanbase and more revenue, also on the other side of a new stadium (Citizens Bank Park opened in 2004).

Depending on how some of the younger players develop, though, the Nationals could be a staying power for a number of years – unlike the Phillies, whose core were already in their prime. For just a few examples, Stephen Strasburg is 24 and Bryce Harper is only 20. If the Nats play it right and have some of these players during their prime years of production, they could be well worth their money.

The youth and talent of the 2013 Nationals plays very much into their favor. The race for the NL East will be a fight – a fight the Nationals look to be a part of for years to come.